Balancing the books gets a high profile in these six films.
Like any character, an accountant on screen can be flawed or fabulous, dazzling or dull. And over the years, Hollywood has provided us with more than a few memorable characters and stories that showcase the value of a good accountant.
As Sarah Engle, visiting professor of accounting at DeVry University, puts it: “It is easy for Hollywood to portray an accountant as the ‘bean counter’ or the ‘bookworm,’ surrounded by piles of papers and armed with a calculator. But this does not give the appropriate amount of depth to the role that an accountant plays in budget negotiations, purchases and investments, investor relations, audit support and routine bookkeeping.”
However, every now and again a film comes along that does show that depth of character. And we may begin to see more, since accounting and auditing careers are projected to grow 16 percent between 2010 and 2020. As number crunching becomes increasingly automated, tomorrow’s expert accountants will need to be more multitalented and innovative than ever—which should make for some interesting plots. Here are six accounting movies that put characters and principles from the accounting world front and center on the big screen.
1. Moneyball (2011)
What Happened: Disappointed with his team’s recent performance and the restrictions of a limited payroll, Oakland A’s general manager embraces a new philosophy that evaluates players based on the actual value of their on-field production using a combination of statistics and accounting principles. This “sabermetric” approach is initially ridiculed, but it eventually leads to a competitive team that sets a record for winning streaks.
Reality Check: While some of the characters and their relationships were altered or, in some cases, invented, Moneyball is regarded as a fairly accurate portrayal of sabermetrics’ introduction to Major League Baseball. This approach continues to grow in popularity as one of the primary methods of evaluating cost vs. expected production for many professional baseball teams.
2. The Untouchables (1987)
What Happened: A Bureau of Prohibition agent meets with one failure after another while trying to prosecute Chicago mob boss Al Capone, but he begins making headway upon recruiting a team of “untouchable” agents that includes accountant Oscar Wallace. Wallace brings Capone to justice by going after Scarface’s bookkeeping records, putting him away on tax evasion charges instead of Prohibition violations. The investigation into the accounting side of Capone’s business eventually leads to the gangster’s 11-year prison sentence.
Reality Check: The character of Oscar Wallace was loosely based on a real agent, a former accountant and an investigator for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Intelligence Unit. This agent’s findings—which included millions of dollars in unreported income—did indeed result in Capone’s receiving an 11-year sentence for tax evasion, and the former accountant went on to become chief of the Secret Service in 1936.
3. The Informant! (2009)
What Happened: A high-ranking exec at a global food processing company decides to blow the whistle on his company’s illegal price-fixing tactics. His covert work with the FBI leads to a bizarre series of events that results in one of the most famous price-fixing conspiracies of the modern era.
Reality Check: While this 2009 film offers a somewhat exaggerated portrayal of this exec’s activities during the FBI investigation, it does stay true to life in its depiction of the type of evidence the FBI asked him to collect—and how he collected it—in order to build the government’s case against ADM. With hidden microphones and cameras, they recorded hundreds of hours of video and audio documenting the conspiracy, resulting in the largest price-fixing case in history up to that point.
“The Informant! did a great job depicting the role of a whistle-blower and illustrating the importance of internal controls in detecting and preventing fraudulent activities in the workplace,” Engle says.
4. Schindler’s List (1993)
What Happened: This Oscar-winning film chronicles the efforts of German businessman Oskar Schindler as he used his wealth and political ties to save the lives of approximately 1,200 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. However, Schindler’s dramatic tale wouldn’t have been possible without help from his accountant who managed Schindler’s company and helped the entrepreneur find ways to protect as many Jewish men, women and children as possible.
Reality Check: The film’s portrayal of the relationship between Schindler and his accountant—beginning as a business arrangement and developing into a close friendship—is consistent with some accounts from people who knew the two men. Schindler’s accountant apparently authored the original list of names that inspired the title and provided much of the bookkeeping necessary to classify the Jewish laborers working for Schindler as “essential” to the German war effort.
5. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
What Happened: Sentenced to prison for murdering his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne finds protection from the ruthless inmates tormenting him by helping the guards and the warden with their finances, providing bookkeeping services and advising them on tax issues. After he’s forced to help launder money the warden received from exploiting prison labor, Dufresne escapes from prison, withdraws the laundered funds and turns over the prison ledger to the newspaper.
Reality Check: While Dufresne’s work for the prison was decidedly “off the books,” employing prisoners as part of both the state and private workforce isn’t unheard-of in the modern era. Companies are required to pay prisoners the appropriate minimum-wage rate in the state and ensure that the jobs aren’t being taken away from free citizens, but unlike Dufresne’s arrangement—which saw him covering up the slave wages the warden received for prisoners’ labor—this type of arrangement is perfectly legal throughout much of the U.S.
6. Dave (1993)
What Happened: Presidential impersonator Dave Kovic is tasked with impersonating the real President, who has fallen into a coma. But Kovic ends up reinvigorating the President’s career as he takes an active role in leading the country. Seeking to cut $650 million from the federal budget in order to retain funding for a homeless shelter, Dave brings in his C.P.A. pal to rewrite the nation’s spending plan.
Reality Check: It probably comes as no surprise that rewriting the federal budget isn’t as simple as it’s portrayed in this film, with the most glaring difference being that any proposed changes to the nation’s spending plan would need to pass through Congress before being enacted.
“Dave,” Engle says, “illustrates the complexity of budgeting and managing large governmental organizations—a theme that is still current today, 20 years after this movie came out!”